Sunday, September 25, 2011

How much should my therapist talk about himself?

One of the joys of my job is helping to train new therapists. Every fall, our clinic hires doctoral students to work with us as trainees, and I have the pleasure of helping to supervise them. New therapists consistently ask questions about some of the things that we struggle with in our profession - "how do I deal with suicidal clients? "What do I do with a client who won't let me get a word in edgewise?" And, "how much should I tell my client about myself?"

We call this "self-disclosure" in therapist parlance, and it's an ongoing question for therapists. I've worked with clients who have told me of therapists they've had who couldn't shut up about themselves, griping about family issues, medical problems or just day-to-day crap. As you can imagine, their clients started to feel bad about bringing their problems to such "troubled" people.

A more common issue for trainees, and for all of us in the field, is whether to do any level of personal disclosure. As we hear about things our clients are experiencing, we're invariably reminded of our own lives. As we listen, we are weighing the costs and benefits of sharing that we've been through the same things. Will it help my client if I tell them that I, too, have lost a friend? Would they be dragged down or elevated by knowing that I've had similar problems?

For some therapists, depending on their theoretical orientation, self-disclosure is the antithesis of what they are in session to do. For some of my colleagues with a psychodynamic bent, their job is to remain enigmatic so their clients can project onto the therapist all the things in their subconscious (note: this is a drastically oversimplified depiction of a very complex process - work with me here!). And almost any therapist you see will limit what they say about themselves - it is, after all, your hour, not theirs.

When my trainees ask about self-disclosure, I start with my very simple rule of thumb - am I doing this for my client, or for myself? If my theoretical stance and my relationship with my client dictate that it would helpful for them to know that I've suffered similar tragedy, or that I have children, or whatever else, I'll carefully share. If I'm telling them that I saw their favorite band from front-row seats, does that do anything other than show them how cool I am? I'll hold that one back.

As I think about it, I apply that rule to everything I do in therapy. I filter my words based on whether they are about the client, or about me. One of our basic ethical principles is that of nonmaleficence, of doing no harm to the client. While it's a stretch to say that telling someone about my life while they are seeing me for therapy is harmful, it certainly isn't helpful. And, any time of theirs that I take to work out my own stuff is time that they could have spent working on theirs.

Next time your therapist makes a personal disclosure, think about that rule of thumb. If you find that you're working with someone who is disclosing to help themselves, maybe it's time to at least have a conversation about their habit. If that kind of self-disclosure persists, it may be time to move on.


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  2. I've had therapists who haven't taken this tack. And I'll tell you right now, I resented the Holy Hell out of paying someone $80/hour to tell me their favorite stories. Really? If I want you to entertain me, I'll buy you a beer! If I'm in your office for therapy, I expect to get therapy, not stories about your ex. To me, that check buys the right to be utterly self-indulgent, and not feel guilty about it.

    I've since done crisis and paraprofessional counseling, and I never forgot what it felt like to be on the other side of this question. Nowadays, I'm a Tarot reader (which is not so different, you know). Still have the same approach. Self-disclosure is only appropriate to the extent it adds something for work at hand and no more. When it's about me, it is on my own time. :)

  3. Dixie - I"m guessing that you and I have quite a bit in common in our work. For you, it's probably "all about the relationship," too. It would be interesting to compare notes some time. Thanks for the comment!